Not too long ago, I decided to get myself an 8BitDo Arcade Stick. If you’ve spent much time here, you might’ve noticed I’m rather into retrogaming. I grew up with joystick-based consoles and arcades, and while I’m happy using a modern gamepad these days, I do often wish I had that arcade feel when I’m emulating an older system. I was also drawn to the tinkering nature of an arcade stick; the actual joysticks and buttons are largely standardized, modular parts. Arcade sticks for home use are generally marketed toward fighting game players these days. I am not one of those. I’m also not well-established with the world of buying parts for and modifying these sticks. If either of those things describes you, this post will be boring and/or infuriating to you. But the information out there is patchy out best, and I’d like to do my part to share my experiences with this specific stick.
Resembling a classic Nintendo Advantage stick and prioritizing conveniences like Bluetooth1, I think the 8BitDo stick is intended for folks like me, vs. professional SNK-heads. Yet, the fact that it uses standard parts and is therefore easily moddable is one of their main selling points; in fact they seem particularly proud of their large joystick mounting plate, populated with myriad holes to accommodate a vast number of sticks on the market. With these two things in mind, I think they’ve done a rather poor job with the latter. Technically, it can be modified… but a lack of any sort of documentation and some curious internal decisions make this a bit difficult for folks falling into the former part of this marketing strategy.
For starters, the stick is held together with six Torx T10 screws. These are set deep inside rather narrow screwholes; you need a driver with a rather thin shaft (standard 1⁄4” multibit drivers won’t work). This is not insurmountable, but it is off-putting for something marketed as modifiable. Worse, they don’t tell you what driver you need, and none of the reviews/etc. that I found online mentioned it beyond complaining that it was a weird screw. Hence the post title. It’s also worth noting that these are just self-tapping screws cutting into plastic. Not great for something that will potentially be opened a lot for modding – it’s worth taking extra care with these2.
Once inside, there’s a ribbon cable going from the USB port on the bottom half of the case to one of the boards on the top half. This needs to be disconnected; after disconnecting it, everything important is on the top half. The two things that you might want to modify once you’re inside are the buttons and the joystick. We’ll start with the buttons.
There are two primary manners in which the buttons mount to the case: screw-in and snap-in. I had issues with both. I briefly had a full set of screw-in buttons installed. This was very difficult to manage, as the nuts just barely fit within the necessary space. In fact, I couldn’t turn the nuts; I had to get them tightly nestled within other bits of plastic and turn the buttons themselves to get them mounted. One was still so tight that I could not get it to fit perfectly flush. These were Crown/Samducksa buttons/nuts. Later, I acquired some Seimitsu screw-ins, and these nuts were even larger. Fortunately, the thread is standardized, so just get the slimmest nuts possible and use those on whatever buttons you want if you’re going to attempt screw-ins. The Crown/Samducksa nuts basically work, but there may be slimmer/better ones out there.
The snap-in buttons I tried were also tricky. I ended up going with some screw-in caps in snap-in housings3. While I was experimenting with things, quite a few of the snap-in buttons I had simply didn’t… snap in correctly. This would cause the buttons to be loose within the stick case, or the caps to bind up within the button housing. In addition to the eight 30mm primary buttons, there are two smaller (24mm) macro buttons at the top of the unit. I tried a couple of additional buttons in here as well, and the Seimitsu buttons that I purchased wouldn’t snap in at all. In the end, while the buttons are certainly sort of a standard, it’s very imperfect. Both screw-ins and snap-ins from major manufacturers were a complete crapshoot.
One thing that wasn’t an issue with button compatibility was the method of connection. Both the 24mm and 30mm buttons are wired up using .110mm lug-style quick disconnects. Every button I’ve seen for sale connects in the same way. The joystick, on the other hand, requires actual work regarding connectivity if you’re going to attempt to swap it. For starters, the stock joystick has .187mm lug-style quick disconnects that are soldered to an 8-pin header that connects to the main board. This header is not standard.
Before getting into what is standard, I should mention that I had experience with a variety of buttons because buttons are cheap. Fiddling around to find out what worked well technically, aesthetically, and as far as play is concerned was fun and worth buying more than I needed. I also had experience with several joysticks, but this was not intentional or fun. I bought not one, but two joysticks that physically did not fit in the case; they were too deep and the bottom half of the case had no chance of mating with the top half. This makes sense – an arcade cabinet has a bit more wiggle room than a unit like this. But it’s worth putting out there – be smarter than me and look at the physical dimensions of any potential joystick. I ended up with a Seimitsu LS-324; Sanwa JLFs look like they should fit. My failed attempts both came from Industrias Lorenzo.
Most sticks come with their microswitches soldered to a PCB with a five-pin header on it. As mentioned, the stock joystick instead has microswitches with bare .187mm lug-style quick-disconnects. Unfortunately, as I also mentioned, these are soldered to wires that terminate in an eight-pin connector. This leaves you with a few options for joystick replacement. There are pads on the main board for the five connections (up, down, left, right, common ground) of the aforementioned five-pin header. One could solder wires to these pads that terminate in one of these connectors, making most of the available joysticks compatible. While I intend to do this at some point, I’ve taken another route for now – simply chopping the eight wires off at the soldered side, and crimping on .187mm quick disconnects. This leaves a non-zero, but still small number of compatible joysticks on the market. One advantage to this approach is that all four joysticks I have in my possession, as well as most others that I’ve seen use standard miniature-sized microswitches. Free from being soldered to a board, the quick-disconnect approach means that these switches can easily be swapped in and out. I cleaned the solder off of the ones that came with the stock joystick and can either freely use that stick again if I want, or keep the switches around as spares.
All in all, I’m happy with the stick. Having a Bluetooth arcade stick for retrogaming is an absolute joy. The stock joystick was mushy, and the stock buttons a bit touchy, but I was able to swap these things out. I do think that if 8BitDo is going to design this thing for a more casual audience while marketing it as customizable and widely compatible with various popular components… they need to do better. I’m a tinkerer; I had the necessary screwdriver to open it already, I knew not to wildly yank it apart because there was likely a ribbon cable joining the two halves, I recognized that I had to strip the existing joystick wiring and crimp on quick-disconnects. I don’t think I should’ve had to know all of this, given the way they’ve designed and are marketing it. Putting customizable things in the hands of non-tinkerers is great; it often makes tinkerers of them. But some guidance is key to making that a smooth process.
- Bluetooth was the selling point for me, and the reason I finally decided to invest in a stick. I understand why most of the sticks on the market are exclusively wired, but… well, again, I’m not using this as a professional tool. ↩︎
- I assume most people here know this, but if you don’t… when you’re re-fastening self-tapping screws, unscrew them first until they kind of click into the existing thread. Even on screws that aren’t self-tapping, this helps to avoid cross-threading, &c. ↩︎
- This combo was initially because I had a new color scheme I wanted to attempt, only available in screw-in, and I didn’t want to deal with the nut issue again if I didn’t have to. I ended up really liking the result, however. The screw-in caps are slightly smaller, leaving a slight gap between the cap and housing. This feels much better to me, as the typically gap-free button experience tends to get a little rubby feeling when hit off-center. I’m sure this is a faux pas. ↩︎
- Initially I wanted to go with the IL sticks because of their short throw and quick return to center. The LS-32 has a fairly short throw, which worked out great. I ended up modifying the LS-32 with a stronger (3lb) spring, an easy enough task because I had spring clip pliers on hand. Joysticks also often have different restrictor gates available – a square allows for full movement; rotating it restricts movement to up, down, left, right; a simple slotted gate restricts movement to only two directions. I ended up putting in an aftermarket octagonal gate, which allows for all eight directions but also gives a positive indent for any given movement to fall into. This was just a matter of four screws. ↩︎